At the age of fifteen, I went on a trip with my school. We were in a group of approximately ten students to one supervisor. All of us attended an American school in Morocco and were returning home from a trip to Spain. Luggage in hand, we boarded the ferry that crosses the straight of Gibraltar between Algeciras, Spain and Tangier, Morocco. Once inside, we all went our separate ways.
At first, the excursion was peaceful. Some of us socialized on the front deck, where we could gaze overboard into the water. It was always fun to watch the ferry cut into an otherwise still, wet blanket and cause tremendous splashes upward onto its sides. Other students lounged inside, wrote in journals, talked, ate or read. I had taken these rides countless times before and was very familiar with the trip. It would take us two and a half hours to cross the ten mile stretch between Europe and Africa. A narrow gateway, which does little to separate the two continents. To the right was the Atlantic Ocean and to the left, the Mediterranean Sea. On a clear day, the view was spectacular. You could see both the coast of Spain and the coast of Morocco. Also, there was the majestic Rock of Gibraltar. I had been to this British owned rock before and there were monkeys at the top. Monkeys with no tails.
We had just enjoyed an exceptionally nice time in Spain, traveling around on a chartered bus. We visited wonderful places, enjoyed each other’s company and ate great food. We even tricked the supervisor one day into believing we were lost so we could stay longer at the ski resort. Instead of taking the Gondola, the way we were supposed to, we went on foot down the steep mountain. Slipping and sliding, we made it late for our deadline back to our meeting spot and endured the agony of facing a twenty minute lecture. It was a fun trip, but now tired, we were ready to head back to boarding school and to our regular routines.
I had not seen the dark clouds drawing near, due to the fact that I was inside at the time. A friend brought it to my attention and I went outside to check it out. It didn’t look good so I stood there and watched for a while as the ferry began to rock back and forth in the now decidedly choppy water. The wind whipped my hair all over my face, so I raised my arm to use it as a shield. The other hand subsequently worked that much harder to keep me in place. I noticed the clouds get progressively darker and move quickly in our direction. After a while, as it became impossible to remain on deck, I went inside.
Before long, the wind turned gusty and the rain came down in torrents. The front deck was now dipping downward and plunging, front end first, into the rough sea. At this point, there was no way to be outside without falling off board. Large amounts of water hurled against the windows all around us. Chairs tumbled over, dishes fell crashing off shelves and everything went slamming from one end of the craft to the other. The bathrooms were occupied with sick people throwing up in toilet bowls, sinks, and even on the floors.
Downstairs in the parking garage, trucks and cars leaned on their sides, ready to tip over. Men worked hard in this spacious section, tying the vehicles and holding them down with ropes. An overturned truck would seriously upset the equilibrium of the vessel. The captain announced over the loudspeaker that should the ferry capsize, it was designed specifically to go all the way around and then come back up again. Despite his good intentions, this was of no consolation to anyone. And so we prayed. But angels must have been watching closely over us, because in due time, after staring death in the face long enough, we did miraculously make it back safely to shore.
There was a long queue by the exit sign. Distressed passengers stood erect alongside the wall and held on to their belongings. Every one of them was desperately eager to get off that boat. I remember the looks in their eyes when they glanced over at me as I entered the room. They were so intensely absorbed in their anguish that as a result, they were incapable of any conversation. Small talk was nonexistent here and an understanding silence permeated the sector. I didn’t bother to question the seriousness of the matter. Instead, I followed suit and waited patiently for my turn to walk down the grand platform to freedom.
After our experience with the roller coaster ride over the water, most of us had a hard time keeping our balance when we finally walked on land. We laughed and cried together about this phenomenon and concurrently expressed our relief at having made it back to shore alive. There were frantic people everywhere hugging their loved ones. But since we were boarding students and had no one there to greet us, we marched forward through this human maze, and onward over to the taxis. The nightmare was over. We were back in Tangier, our city built on low sand hills. A city that was at one time an international zone, governed by the consuls of eight European nations. A city that had three official languages – French, Spanish and Arabic. We talked about our experience a little, but mostly we went on with our lives as though nothing unusual had ever happened.
©Jean Ligtvoet 2002